Image: Passengers relax while riding the train to Washington
Rob Carr  /  AP
Passengers relax while riding the train to Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 16, in Wilmington, Del. President-elect Barack Obama will travel on a private charter train from Philadelphia to Washington on Jan. 17, 2009, prior to the Inauguration.
updated 12/21/2008 11:17:35 AM ET 2008-12-21T16:17:35

The centuries-old right of way between Philadelphia and Washington is marked by shimmering waterways and industrial sprawl, well-kept suburbs and urban blight.

President-elect Barack Obama won't be sharing a ride with thousands of long-distance commuters when he travels on a private charter train from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to Washington's Union Station on Jan. 17, three days before he takes the oath of office. But his route will be exactly the same.

In fact, it hasn't changed much since Abraham Lincoln rode the rails before his inauguration.

Evidently Obama has thought deeply about the symbolism of the 135-mile journey, something that regular riders typically aren't inclined to do. Nonetheless, they develop a feel for the changing landscape.

"You see those deserted houses, and you know you're in Baltimore," said Gifty Kwakye, 27, a student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who commutes daily from Philadelphia.

Need for renewal clear
The theme for Obama's inaugural is "Rewewing America's Promise," and as Kwakye noted, the need for such renewal will be clear in the five minutes before Obama's train pulls into Baltimore's Penn Station. The tracks pass through some of east Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods, where abandoned and burned-out row homes seem to outnumber inhabited ones. The city has nearly 30,000 abandoned properties.

A gaze out the window could also remind Obama of the troubles of the auto industry, the decline of American manufacturing and the strain on the military.

Johnnie Walker, a 60-year-old Amtrak operations supervisor from Middletown, Del., who has been with the railroad for 29 years, finds profound scenes throughout the journey.

At the Chrysler plant outside Wilmington, Del., "you see it's in the process of closing, and you wonder what's going to happen to all the employees there," Walker said. At Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground, "you start thinking about the military personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan, wondering where they're being deployed to.

"There's a lot of emotion when you travel on these trains," Walker said.

A transformed landscape
The landscape has transformed since Lincoln's inaugural train ride. But Lincoln, just like passengers today, made the dramatic crossing at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

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"That's my favorite scene," said Amtrak employee Peggy White, 50, as she served coffee to groggy commuters. "I have to leave my counter just to look out. It's a beautiful scene."

The tracks also cross the Bush River and the Gunpowder River as the train zips down to Baltimore. It was just south of the Gunpowder, in Chase, Md., where one of the worst crashes in Amtrak history occurred. In January 1987, a Conrail engineer under the influence of marijuana sped through a warning signal and the locomotive collided with an Amtrak train. Sixteen people were killed.

Closer to the city line, the path begins to divert from the one Lincoln took.

"In that day, Baltimore had three different railroad stations. None of them were connected," said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore. Rail cars were pulled through the city by horses, then hooked up with a different locomotive at the next station.

That transfer point became the site of some infamous subterfuge by Lincoln. His security chief, Allan Pinkerton — founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency — suspected that someone would make an attempt on his life in Baltimore, a city that in 1861 was divided between Northern and Southern sympathizers.

Pinkerton arranged for Lincoln to hide at President Street Station before "his car was pulled through Baltimore under the darkness of night," Wilson said. The maneuver was denounced in contemporary newspaper accounts as cowardly and inspired a political cartoon that showed the president-elect furtively peeking out of a freight car, wearing a nightshirt.

Huge crowd expected for speech
By contrast, Obama will be making a speech before what is sure to be a huge crowd in a city that overwhelmingly supported him, both in the Democratic primary and the general election.

The act of riding the train — along with events in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore — expands the inaugural festivities to include more people, something that previous presidents with a mandate to change Washington have done.

"It does remind me a bit of Jimmy Carter jumping out of the limo on his inauguration, walking through the streets, and through the act reminding Americans this presidency would be different," said Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

And by beginning his trip in the nation's birthplace, Obama will be emphasizing the historic nature of his own election as the first black president — "reminding voters how, unlike almost any other election, the choice voters made in itself was a watershed," Zelizer said.

For Amtrak riders, the trip makes another strong point, about the importance of mass transit — particularly given the participation of Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who will hop on Obama's train when it stops in Wilmington.

Biden, famously, decided to commute daily from his Delaware home after his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, shortly after his election to the Senate. The train rides allowed him to spend more time at home with his young sons, and he stuck with the routine throughout his 35 years in the Senate.

Other elected officials ride the rails
Biden's Amtrak trips are likely to be confined to weekends for at least the next four years, but he's not the only elected official who rides the rails.

Rep.-elect Leonard Lance, R-N.J., was aboard the Northeast Regional on Tuesday for an apartment-hunting trip to Washington. He lives in Clinton Township, N.J., and boarded the train in Trenton, a 2 1/2-hour journey.

"I commend the vice president-elect because I think he put his family first," said Lance, who, like Biden, plans to advocate for improved rail service.

"Amtrak is important to people in the Northeast, and of course we need to become more energy efficient and support mass transit," Lance said.

Praising mass transit aboard an Amtrak train is as politically astute as pushing for education money at a teachers' convention. As they doze off, peck away at laptops or bury their noses in newspapers or novels, the passengers look like they are in on a secret.

"It's convenient. It's kind of expensive," said Kwakye, echoing the comments of a half-dozen other passengers. "But it's better than driving."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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